The Bell Tolls

The United States state of Washington provides us this week with a very interesting lessons learnt review from the introduction of statewide car tolling.

The State Auditor’s Office neatly describes the context and the reason for the review:

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) developed a statewide all-electronic toll collection system to collect tolls on the State Route (SR) 520 Bridge, on other existing toll facilities, and future toll facilities. WSDOT hired a vendor to provide the information technology system needed to implement all-electronic tolling and to provide customer services.

WSDOT and its vendor experienced challenges in developing the new system that created significant delays in tolling the SR 520 Bridge resulting in a lost opportunity to collect an estimated $40 million in tolls. Washington now has a statewide all-electronic toll collection system that meets the contract’s requirements, but the delays and other problems with the project frustrated customers, the public, and the Legislature. To help avoid similar issues with future tolling projects, our audit was designed to answer the following question:

What lessons can be learned from WSDOT’s development and implementation of statewide all-electronic tolling?

The report is an excellent summation of the challenges of trying to introduce new technology on a grand scale.

But perhaps most critically the project struggled due to classic failures of project governance.  The report notes:

We found the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) faced challenges managing a complicated project that involved collaboration across the department, where roles and responsibilities were unclear, including who made decisions, who was accountable, and how the vendor was to be managed.

A number of weeks ago, McLeod Governance advocated for well time pre implementation reviews and we – not surprisingly – still hold that view.

That being said there is a time and a place for lessons learnt / post implementation reviews of the sort that the Washing State Auditor’s Office has produced.

The challenge with such reports is that future generations can easily dismiss the learnings contained within as relevant only to the specific circumstances under initial review.

That would be – and is a – great shame.

The lessons learnt from this report should toll – we had to get that pun in somewhere! – for time immemorial.

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